One-Man Factory is Continually Stoked for the Next Project

When he’s not creating earthy rustic-look pottery, Josh Copus is building labyrinths and installing interactive community art projects.
Portrait by Amos Moses

Josh Copus is a successful ceramic artist, and, with his wife Emily, a commercial flower grower (she’s their company’s head designer). But he refuses to distinguish between his time in the studio and his hours spent digging in the dirt. “I use the natural world around me as a source of inspiration for shapes and surfaces … so that my [artwork] comes from somewhere deeper than just my hands,” he says.

He’s had a lifetime to muse on such connections. His childhood pal Seth is the son of potter Tom Phelps. “We would play around in [Tom’s] studio at night and make weird little sculptures and silly things,” says Copus. Later, he says, “Tom would throw the pots and we would come in after school and sculpt faces on them.” Tom sold some of these face pots at a show and gave the boys half the money. “When Tom showed me you could make money doing something you loved, it changed my life forever.”

Monument 1

Copus completed the Professional Crafts Program at Haywood Community College, and then enrolled at UNCA, getting his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. He won the Center for Craft’s Windgate Fellowship, and used the $15,000 grant to make a down payment on some land in Marshall, buy an old Airstream trailer, and build his first wood-fired kiln.

“That first summer was the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life,” says Copus. “I was so determined to be an artist that it was almost unhealthy. I was so broke all the time, living in the trailer or sleeping in the studio and just trying to get a start.” He eventually got a gig tending bar at Wedge Brewing Co., but notes, “I would still work more than 40 hours in the studio every week.”

Copus founded Clayspace Co-op in the River Arts District in 2003 and remains involved there. “I’m excited for [the venue] to continue helping people make a living as artists. That’s been its greatest legacy.”

Meanwhile, there’s his mobile community brick factory: “Its mission is to create positive human interactions,” says Copus. Participants make bricks by hand and write or draw whatever they want on them. The bricks are then used to construct monuments across the country, including one at the old jailhouse and sheriff’s office in downtown Marshall.

Copus and some partners purchased that building at auction in 2016 and have plans to convert the cells into living spaces and to lease the rest of the building to commercial tenants. The cells’ bars, he says, will be creatively repurposed in the renovation. 

The indefatigable potter talks about his “enthusiasm for the process of making” without a sense of the understatement. This winter, he wants to build a showroom, which will join the other structures he’s made on the couple’s Madison County property: a barn, a labyrinth, a wood-fired pizza oven, an outhouse, and a (seemingly unnecessary) sleeping platform.

Copus is so DIY he even built his own kiln.

Josh Copus, Marshall. Copus’ work is part of the “Ceramics Invitational” running through Friday, Jan. 4, 2019, at Blue Spiral 1 (38 Biltmore Ave., bluespiral1.com). His work is also represented at Clayspace Co-op (119-A Roberts St. in the River Arts District). For more information, visit joshcopus.com. E-mail joshcopuspottery@gmail.com to arrange a studio visit.

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